December 8, 2015
By Andrea Martin, PhD, Psychologist
A couple of months ago, I listened to a podcast a colleague had recommended to me which really got me thinking. Jonathan Fields of Goodlife Project was interviewing Jessica Lahey about her book“The Gift of Failure”. Her message is simple and echoes something we have heard more and more about in the media in recent years: Well-intentioned and loving parents who believe they are helping their kids are actually doing more damage than good when they hover. Lahey is a high school teacher and mother herself. In her book she explains that in today’s society we have a tendency to be “overprotective or overparent” which, despite our good intentions, is actually doing our kids more harm than good. As a psychologist who works with children and their parents and as a parent of two young kids myself, Jessica Lahey’s message really hit home. I found myself thinking more and more about her message and decided to pick up her book, which did not disappoint!
In her book Lahey argues that we have become so averse to fear in our culture and that we avoid it at all costs; not only for ourselves, but also in our efforts to protect our children. However, she explains that by trying to prevent our children from experiencing any discomfort or distress we are depriving them of an opportunity to learn valuable skills, like problem solving and resilience, and consequently undermining their development. Although this “looking out for” or hovering (call it what you want!) comes from a good place, we are actually doing more damage than good. This overprotectiveness, despite its good intentions, is depriving our children of the chance to develop skills and resources they need to succeed in adulthood such as self-confidence and autonomy. By stepping in to save them we are not providing them with space to figure things out on their own, and hence fostering dependence and communicating a message to them that we don’t think they can do it, or not without our help in any case. Is this the message we want to convey to our kids?
Lahey also explains how we are passing on our fear of failure to our children. By encouraging them to avoid failure we encourage them to “play it safe” and discourage them from taking risks. Could you imagine if no one took risks anymore? Think of Henry Ford, Arianna Huffington, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey; all great examples of people who took risks and went on to have a lot of success. Not all the risks we take turn out as we had hoped, but often setbacks (or even perceived failures) are the experiences from which we learn and grow the most, even if the experience isn’t always pleasant.
As parents, I think it’s fair to say that we all want the best for our children. We go to great lengths to protect them and help them. But is this helpful? As a parent myself I struggle with this. Am I doing too much for them? Am I not doing enough? We are bombarded with messages from the media, friends, family, etc. that make it hard to know what is “the right thing to do”?
After reading some of Lahey’s articles (Lahey 2013, Lahey 2015) and her book (Lahey 2015) I found myself paying more attention to my own actions as a parent. Recognizing that at times I will hover (I admit it!) when my daughter is doing her homework (she’s in Grade 1, don’t I need to sit and do her homework with her?), or picking up my little ones toys and clothes (“It will be simpler and quicker if I just do it myself!”), but these well intentioned actions are undermining my childrens’ abilities and preventing them from doing things for themselves that will help them become more confident and autonomous in the long run. Can you parents relate to this struggle? Please, tell me that I am not alone in this! I have since been working on (and struggling with!) resisting the temptation to jump in to help, assist, speed things up – you get the picture. Not an easy task and certainly requires discipline on my part. Lahey (2015) reminds us that focusing more on our children’s long-term well-being and less on their short-term happiness is important.
Lahey (2015) refers to parents who are overly aware of their children’s needs and jump in at every chance to save them. This could be a parent rushing to school to deliver a forgotten assignment, lunch, or gym equipment for example. In an interview with Jonathan Fields on the Goodlife Project Lahey shares an example from her own life when her son forgot his math homework and she had to hold herself back from bringing it to school for him. She goes on to explain that luckily she held herself back from bringing it in because it gave her son a chance to learn from his experience and come up with a strategy with his teacher to help him remember his homework in the future. A practical lesson that empowered him and helped him develop problem solving skills and practical organizational habits. She explained that had she swept in to save her son, she would have fulfilled her need to feel like a “good mother” by swooping into school with his homework, hoping to prevent any negative consequences, but she would have robbed him of the lesson he learned that helped him grow and become more autonomous that day.
In the last few years more studies have been done to explore the effects of parenting styles on childhood outcomes. Although parental involvement has been demonstrated to be associated with many positive child outcomes, if the involvement is not developmentally age appropriate (ex. helping a 9 year old get dressed daily versus helping a toddler) it can have negative effects such as increasing levels of depression and anxiety (Schiffrin et al. 2013). Research has demonstrated that the effects of overparenting (as discussed above) can produce negative effects such as reports of feeling more negatively about oneself and lower overall well-being in college students (LeMoyne & Buchanan, 2015). Studies showed that the negative effects of over controlling or overprotective parenting were due to adolescents perceived violation of their need for autonomy and sense of competence (Shiffrin et al. 2013). According to the literature, over involvement often begins when kids are very young and it’s argued that it continues throughout high school, college and beyond. In fact, some universities have spoken out against parents who “hover” and of the negative effects on these students and have even invested money into programs to help the university staff handle them (LeMoyne & Buchanan 2015). If that isn’t an indication that we have gone too far in parenting, I don’t know what is!
I agree with Lahey (2015) when she suggests that “overparenting” likely comes from a place of fear. A fear that our children won’t be ok, and wanting to do everything we can to ensure their well-being. Could overparenting also be related to a fear that we won’t be good parents? We need to resist jumping in to fulfill our own selfish need to feel like we are “good parents”. It’s time to put our own needs aside and prioritize the needs of our children by allowing them the space to try to figure things out on their own (and possibly even fail sometimes!).
Lahey (2015) puts it so beautifully: “with a little luck, they will look back on their childhood and thank us; not just for our unwavering love, but for our willingness to put their long-term developmental and emotional needs before their short-term happiness. For our willingness to make their lives be just a little bit harder today so they will know how to face hardship tomorrow.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog for practical tips on how we can avoid “overparenting” and what exactly we CAN do to foster the development of our childrens’ autonomy.
Schiffrin., Holly. H., Liss, M., Miles-Mclean, H., Geary, K.A., Erchull, M.J., Tashner, Y. (2014). Helping or Hovering? The effects of helicopter Parenting on College Student’s Well-Being”. Journal of Child and Family Studies. Vol 23: 548-557.
Gottlieb, L.(2011). How to Land your Kid in Therapy. The Atlantic. July/August 2011 Issue.
Lahey, J. (2015). The Gift of Failure. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Lahey, J. (2015). When Success Leads to Failure. The Atlantic. August 11, 2015.
Lahey, J. (2013). Why Parents Need to let Their Children Fail. The Atlantic. January 29, 2013.
LeMoyne, T., Buchanan, T. (2011). Does “Hovering” Matter? Helicopter Parenting and its Effect on Well-Being”. Sociological Spectrum. Vol 31:4, 399-418.